Guest Opinion: We should look at alternatives to jail

Thought-provoking column by JP Gerald Williams

We Should Look At Alternatives to Jail

Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace

Although governments at every level in Arizona are facing a significant budget problem, perhaps there is some solace in the knowledge that at least we are better off than California. One item considered as a cost saving measure almost everywhere is to let nonviolent criminals out of jail early. Perhaps a better solution is to determine the best way to keep people from going to jail in the first place.

Research conducted last year at the Pew Center on the States developed model statutory language for state “Recidivism Reduction Acts.” If enacted, these laws would require funds to be spent on evidenced based practices that actually reduce crime.

By way of example, a significant number of people are in jail or prison because they violated a condition of their probation or parole. The vast majority of arrest warrants that I sign are issued because either someone missed their court date or is not making payments on their criminal fines.

While these offenses are serious, perhaps a series of alternative graduated sanctions that are swift, certain and proportionate would free law enforcement agents to perform other duties. These alternate sanctions could include things like electronic monitoring, drug and alcohol testing and perhaps even seizure of personal property.

The U.S. Department of Justice has done similar research. One of their conclusions, perhaps not surprisingly, was that low-risk offenders are more likely to return to crime if they are included in programs alongside high-risk offenders.

Also according to the Justice Department, the United States now imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on earth. While I am not in favor of lenient or soft sentencing, I am certainly willing to listen to ways that we can possibly do things better.

Many judges believe that they have an almost unlimited authority to change the meaning of statutes or to “legislate from the bench.” I am not one of those judges. As such, I believe that many of these ideas would require statutory changes before they could be adopted in Arizona. Even so, they are worth considering now.

When the California court system allows celebrities, or anyone, to serve 84 minutes in jail for their second DUI, obviously justice has not been served. However, is also not the best use of admittedly limited resources to put someone in jail for the third time after their third arrest warrant because it has not been a priority for them to pay a fine imposed three years earlier. If such a defendant knew that a constable would seize his television if he was two fine payments behind, do you think that paying that fine would suddenly become important to him? It’s just a thought.

Judge Williams is the presiding justice of the peace for the Northwest Regional Court Center. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus


  1. Pricinct Committeeman says

    Judge Williams is the best JP in the state. He is an attorney, unlike some of the other justices of the peace. So, he knows the law.

    More importantly, he is concerned about people and what they think. He is reasonable enough to hear arguments from lay people and weigh those thoughts against the position of the professional prosecutor or attorney for the other side.

    More justices like him and our court system would succeed like no other state has done.

  2. Wow, it is amazing what economic realities will bring about. A few months ago I suggested that the state legislature might want to look at things like sentencing guidelines and ‘decriminalizing’ some human behaviors. The good judge must have been listening…

  3. Get rid of mandatory minimums and decriminalize simple drug possession. It is absurd that we have so many people in prison.

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